The Robustness of Science and the Dance of Agency

  • Andrew PickeringEmail author
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 292)


This essay examines the notion of ‘robustness’ from the perspective developed in my book, The Mangle of Practice. The central concept is that of an emergent and decentred dance of agency between scientists and the material world—nature, instruments, machines. The novel argument here is that in science such dances have the telos of extinguishing themselves—of making a clean split between human scientists and ‘free-standing machines’—of making the world dual. That this end is sometimes more or less accomplished points to a degree of nonhuman stability in the material culture of science which is the ontological basis of its robustness. I extend the discussion to include the epistemological components of science and their robustness, and conclude with a consideration of the relation between robustness, uniqueness and contingency. Ontological robustness is the achievement of a specific ‘machinic grip’ on the world, and I argue, with examples at both micro- and macro-scales, that we should not assume that there is one best machinic grip that science is destined to find. My suggestion is that a novel and non-representational sort of ‘machinic incommensurability’ continually bubbles up in science, at all scales, large and small.


Scientific Knowledge Material World Bubble Chamber Scientific Culture Interactive Stabilisation 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



This work was supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea Grant funded by the Korean Government (NRF-2010-330-B00169).


  1. Barnes, B. 1994. “How Not to do the Sociology of Knowledge.” In Rethinking Objectivity, edited by A. Megill, 21–35. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Feyerabend, P.K. 1975. Against Method. London: New Left Books.Google Scholar
  3. Fleck, L. 1979. Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  4. Franklin, A. 1986. The Neglect of Experiment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Gould, S. 1989. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  6. Hacking, I. 1992. “The Self-Vindication of the Laboratory Sciences.” In Science as Practice and Culture, edited by A. Pickering, 29–64. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  7. Hacking, I. 1999. The Social Construction of What? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Kuhn, T.S. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  9. Pickering, A. 1981. “Constraints on Controversy: The Case of the Magnetic Monopole.” Social Studies of Science 11(1):63–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Pickering, A. 1984a. “Against Putting the Phenomena First: The Discovery of the Weak Neutral Current.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 15:85–117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Pickering, A. 1984b. Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  12. Pickering, A. 1989. “Living in the Material World: On Realism and Experimental Practice.” In The Uses of Experiment: Studies of Experimentation in the Natural Sciences, edited by D. Gooding, T.J. Pinch and S. Schaffer, 275–97. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Pickering, A. 1990. “Knowledge, Practice and Mere Construction.” Social Studies of Science 20:682–729.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Pickering, A., ed. 1992. Science as Practice and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  15. Pickering, A. 1995a. The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  16. Pickering, A. 1995b. “Cyborg History and the World War II Regime.” Perspectives on Science 3:1–48.Google Scholar
  17. Pickering, A. 2005. “Decentring Sociology: Synthetic Dyes and Social Theory.” Perspectives on Science 13:352–405.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Pickering, A. 2009. “The Politics of Theory: Producing Another World, with some thoughts on Latour.” Journal of Cultural Economy 2:197–212.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Sullivan, W. 1989. “Prof. William N. Fairbank, 72, Physicist and Pioneer in Quarks.” New York Times, 3 October 1989.Google Scholar
  20. Wimsatt, W. 1981. “Robustness. Reliability and Overdetermination.” In Scientific Inquiry and the Social Sciences, edited by M. Brewer and B. Collins, 124–63. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology and PhilosophyUniversity of ExeterExeterUK
  2. 2.Department of SociologyKyung Hee UniversitySeoulKorea

Personalised recommendations